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Researchers: What Is the Value of Imagery in Marketing?

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Researchers: What Is the Value of Imagery in Marketing?

A group of scholars show why what you see isn’t always what you get.
A woman arranges fashion photos
Photographs at British online fashion retailer ASOS | Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

It seems like common sense: If you’re selling a product online, the more photographs of the product that you show to shoppers, the more likely they are to buy it. After all, a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, so wouldn’t seven pictures be worth a lot more?

Not necessarily. It turns out that when shoppers look at multiple images of two competing products, differences blur, and the items start to look alike. That’s because seeing multiple pictures of the same products actually changes how consumers see things, altering their visual processing style, according to new research by Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Baba Shiv and two colleagues. You might say we sometimes see a forest and other times we see the trees, depending on our visual processing style at the moment.

The research was inspired by a visit one of Shiv’s co-researchers made to Zappos, a popular online shopping site. Jayson Jia of the University of Hong Kong noticed that “the more I looked at shoes from different angles, the more they seemed alike.”

Why is this?

There are two visual processing styles — a big-picture style called gestalt processing and a detail-oriented style called component processing.
There are two visual processing styles — a big-picture style called gestalt processing and a detail-oriented style called component processing.

Broadly speaking, there are two visual processing styles — a detail-oriented style called component processing and a big-picture style called gestalt processing. If someone looks at a painting and focuses on a single detail such as the buttons on a coat, that is component visual processing. If someone looks at a painting and sees the overall scene, that is gestalt visual processing.

This gestalt view is important because one cannot recognize objects without perceiving the whole. For example, one can see that two faces are similar (or different) without having noticed the color of the eyes or the shape of the nose, while the inverse is not true.

Similarly, when consumers look at a product such as a pair of sunglasses, they are likely to base their decision on the overall style and appearance of the glasses — gestalt processing. But component processing, which focuses on details, is more common when buyers purchase products such as a smartphone.

This has important implications for marketing. The researchers found that while companies often offer multiple views of their products for online shoppers, doing so can actually make it harder for consumers to distinguish between the products. That’s because showing shoppers more pictures of products can change their visual processing style and make it harder to distinguish one product from another.

To understand this better, the researchers tried to re-create the online shopping experience by presenting pictures to participants.

In the study, one group was shown a single photo of each product — in this case, two brands of shoes — and another group was shown multiple different photographs of each product. The basic setup is similar to shopping online where you can either see a single “main picture” of each product, or click on the “additional views” option to view more pictures of each product, taken from different angles or in different colors.

Seeing multiple views did not make one product seem more attractive than the other. It made them both less attractive.
Baba Shiv

Interestingly, the members of the group who saw the most different views of the products found them to be less distinctive and less attractive than the people who saw only a few photos or saw the same photos repeated multiple times.

The researchers called this effect “product agnosia,” a term based on the Greek word for “not knowing” or “without knowledge.” In other words, seeing the new information led people to forget differences they otherwise would have retained. That’s because they focused on a single detail, as in the laces, rather than the gestalt, or overall product. By contrast, the group members who saw fewer pictures were more likely to recall which product they liked better; product agnosia did not occur.

“When we see one picture, we usually focus on the big-picture aspects like style and the overall look of the product,” the researchers explained. “For the many products that are distinguished by big-picture elements such as style or design or brand, a change in visual processing style to a component level moves our focus away from the aspects that distinguished those products in the first place.”

Person shopping online from laptop
Online shopping | Associated Press/Tony Avelar

What’s a marketer to do with this information? One option, the researchers discovered, is to encourage shoppers to delay their purchases for a bit. Placing an item like these shoes in a virtual shopping cart and returning to the website later makes a significant difference, they found.

Test participants who delayed purchases tended to remember the differences between the products even though they had been exposed to multiple views of them. That’s because recalling a product from memory triggers gestalt-style processing, which in turn reverses product agnosia. In other words, products that depend on consumers viewing the overall style such as shoes or sunglasses benefit from viewers seeing the big picture instead of focusing on a single detail.

However, not every type of product falls victim to product agnosia. This seems particularly true for products in which consumers seek many specific details. At first glance, touch-screen smartphones, for example, don’t appear very different from each other because they have relatively similar overall designs.

But shoppers are looking beyond the obvious and therefore examine images of smartphones through component processing. They pay attention to details such as button location, camera placement, and whether the operating system appears to be Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android.

As a result, it didn’t matter how many views of the phones they saw. They were able to distinguish one phone from the other and choose which one they would like to buy. In this case, product agnosia simply disappeared.

Overall, this research shows that the intuition of “showing more is better” may not be true. Shiv says the marketer’s instinct to highlight differences by offering more visual impressions can backfire. “When product agnosia occurs, looking at more can lead to seeing less if it changes how we look at things,” he says.

If buying decisions are affected so heavily by visual processing, isn’t it critical for marketers to know which products are subject to product agnosia? “Savvy marketers,” says Shiv, “already know how two products are differentiated.” But they need to carefully evaluate their methods of displaying products. “Talk to real shoppers; understand what they bought and how they made their purchase decisions,” he says. “And then adjust your selling strategy.”

Baba Shiv is the Sanwa Bank, Limited, Professor of Marketing at Stanford GSB and the R. Michael Shanahan Faculty Fellow for 2013-2014. Jayson Jia earned his PhD from Stanford GSB in 2013, and Sanjay Rao is a researcher at Stanford GSB.

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